Friday, July 28, 2006

Encyclopedias down the rabbit hole

Have you tried to look for encyclopedias on your local library's website? If not, try it. I'll wait here.

Time passes.

If you can't find a page that lists the encyclopedias on your library's website, it could be due to the fact that no such page exists. It could be that you are searching the website of a library that expects you to search the library's catalogue for what you want. They have decided that they are not able to create and maintain a static website or second database of their online resources because that would require a duplication of effort. Too bad that library catalogues, or what we like to call in the library biz as OPACs... well, too bad that OPACs suck.

Another reason why you may be having difficulty finding encyclopedias in your library's website is because the encyclopedias are nestled snuggly in a section called something like "databases", "indexes", "e-resources", "find articles" or "research tools". After stumbling down this rabbit hole, you then have to search for what you want or browse an a-z list of titles in order to find something that you recognize as an encyclopedia.

Some libraries may also offer a "Reference" or Quick Facts section. Paradoxically, this section will frequently only offer encyclopedias that are freely available on the web. If you want to find the encyclopedias that your library has spent good money on, well, you have to get back to the homepage and find the right rabbit hole. Still other libraries will create annotated lists of useful encyclopedias and even break these down by subject. But these lists will be under a heading like "Subject Guide" or "Research Guide". So if a user has a question about hydrophobia, they are supposed to go to the biology section of the library's database collection (or Biology Research Guide) and search for an approprate research tool to use.

But our user knows what she wants to use. She wants to use an encyclopedia.

I think one of the reasons why its so hard to find encyclopedias on library's websites is because we don't organize our online material by format. I have only stumbled upon one library's website that provides searching by format on the front page and that is the University of Alberta. (Encyclopedias are listed after clicking on the Reference and Quick Facts link but these are free encyclopedias that can be found on the web. The encyclopedias that are paid by the library are to be found in their database of databases. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and the Leddy Library (where I work) took up their example and created a link to encyclopedias under a link called Journal Articles and Research Tools by Subject. We are guilty of not including some of the encyclopedias that can be found in our Research Guides).

Librarians have underestimated the public's desire to have an online encyclopedia that is always at the ready. Will we react to the public's enthusiam for Wikipedia and make encyclopedias easier to find? Or will we wait (and wait) until our library catalogues marry content management systems and give birth to more useful library websites?

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